Great characters and a plot that fails to ignite
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
|Written by Lisa D’Amour
Directed by Austin Pendleton
at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 7 | tickets: $20-$73 | more info
Steppenwolf Theatre’s Detroit is an example of a production with great direction and top-drawer performances. It is also, unfortunately, a play defined by four characters in search of a plot. The less said about the fifth member of the cast – whose rambling, tacked-on epilogue is one sorry excuse for an ending – the better.
Playwright Lisa D’Amour’s tale of a subdivision in decline is all mood and little matter, which is to say there’s no story here, just a series of vignettes that provide character sketches of four dysfunctional suburbanites, none of whom changes during the 100-minute production. Yes, there’s major materialistic loss for half of the foursome on stage. Despite that, the characters of Detroit end up pretty much in the same place where they started. Were it not for director Austin Pendleton‘s killer cast – Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson, Kate Arrington and Ian Barford – Detroit would be a complete non-starter.
The titular city is never mentioned. Life-size tract houses (literally within spitting distance of each other) fill the stage in Kevin Depinet’s meticulously detailed set (right down to leaves decaying in long-neglected gutters). They could be just outside any city in the U.S. – which may be the point. Josh Schmidt’s sound design – chirping birds, drowned out by the drone of distant traffic zooming by on some anonymous highway – indicate a suburban locale with a decidedly urban emphasis. Urban – in this case – doesn’t mean gleaming skyscrapers or city-dwelling sophisticates. Detroit unfolds in a place of borderline shabbiness and barely-concealed desperation. Nothing quite works as it should here, not the malfunctioning patio umbrella that turns a backyard barbeque into a small disaster, and not grill master Ben (Barford), struggling to create an online business after being laid off from his job in a bank.
At curtain up, Ben and his wife Mary (Metcalf) are acting with enthusiastic good will, grilling steaks in a welcome-to-the-neighborhood cookout for newly moved in Sharon (Arrington) and Roger (Anderson). On the surface, it’s a scene of All-American normalcy. But D’Amour’s dialogue keeps things on edge. People keep saying things that aren’t quite right, things that are in fact – the more you think on them – profoundly messed up. Mary, for all her smiling welcome, seems to be living on Planet Angry. Her words have an ugly sharpness that doesn’t jive with the graciously elaborate appetizers. Ben is living the American dream, an entrepreneur filled with ambition and smarts – except for the nagging question of how it is that somebody living on the margins of the nation’s economic pie can possibly succeed as a one-man financial planning enterprise.
Sharon and Rob aren’t exactly Laura and Rob Petrie either. Sharon confides that she and Roger met in rehab, which is absolutely fine and dandy because they’re both obviously well on recovery’s road – employed, clear-eyed and functional. It’s just a teensy bit odd that they seem to own neither furniture nor a change of clothes. And they do have intense, fond memories of a lost weekend in “Hotlanta” that may or may not have involved free-basing meth. And Sharon cries a lot. And just one beer won’t hurt, not when your main problem has always been heroin, right? And that’s just the start of the kinks and quirks that pepper D’Amour’s wonderful dialogue.
The problem with Detroit is that for all the marvelously rendered conversation, there’s no arc. We get memorable scenes of memorable people talking – and eventually yelling and dirty dancing and recklessly playing with matches - but there’s never anything much at stake. In the end, half of the foursome on stage simply vanishes. You certainly don’t need closure to create a successful drama, but you do need some sort of structure. Detroit, in the end, feels both static and incomplete.
What makes it worth seeing are the performances of four Steppenwolf ensemble members, each one at the top of their game. Metcalf, especially, brings a wild-eyed, dangerously suppressed rage to Mary. There’s something feral about her, and when that something boils over during a backyard barbeque-turned-Bacchanal, Metcalf puts on the crazy pants and turns them up to stun. Barford is equally effective in a quieter way, capturing the sad-sack weariness of a stay-at-home non-starter who has been out of the work force long enough to lose his spirit, maybe for good. Arrington nails the E-Z Cheez ethos of a white-trash crackhead whacktress with a heart of gold while Anderson channels his inner eighth grade caveman as a good guy who is a profoundly bad influence.
As for Robert Brueler‘s late-in-the-game appearance, it’s only tolerable because it’s relatively brief. I spent the first half of his expository monologue trying to figure out what he was saying – enunciation isn’t Brueler’s strong suit – and the last half wishing he’d just wrap it up already. There’s one reason to see Detroit, and that’s for the fearsome foursome of Arrington, Barford, Anderson and Metcalf. It’s just too bad they don’t have more to do.
Cast: Kevin Anderson, Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Robert Breuler and Laurie Metcalf.
Director: Austin Pendleton
Design Team: Kevin Depinet (sets), Rachel Healy (costumes), Kevin Rigdon (lights) and Josh Schmidt (sound), Tommy Rapley (choreography) and Matt Hawkins (fight choreography). Polly Carl is the Dramaturg, Michelle Medvin is the Stage Manager and Rose Marie Packer is the Assistant Stage Manager.
Lisa D’Amour is a playwright and interdisciplinary artist whose works have been presented in New York and other major U.S. cities. D’Amour has been commissioned to write two new plays for Steppenwolf over the next two years through support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. An actor, director and playwright, ensemble member Austin Pendleton began his artistic relationship with Steppenwolf directing the 1979 production of Say Goodnight, Gracie. His award-winning plays include Booth, Uncle Bob and Orson’s Shadow, which received its world premiere in the Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage.